Northern Ireland

Belfast consumers benefit from gas competitors

Gas flames
Image caption Consumers will benefit from new competition in the domestic gas market

New competition which will open up NI's domestic gas market has received a warm welcome from industry watchdogs.

Customers in the greater Belfast and Larne areas will, from Tuesday, be able to choose from two suppliers.

The Consumer Council said that with firmus energy now in competition with Phoenix Natural Gas, customers would benefit from lower prices.

The utility regulator said it was good news for customers, "especially entering the winter months".

Regulator gas director Brian McHugh said: "Today's announcement is the first stage in a process to open up the domestic gas market in the Greater Belfast area to competition.

"During the initial testing period, the number of customers able to switch will be limited, however this will increase as the systems are tested.

"As part of the phased entry, we have allowed firmus energy to begin by supplying to credit customers only.

"We will continue to work with the energy industry to ensure that systems are in place to allow pay-as-you-go customers to start to switch in early 2011, ensuring that all customers can benefit from competition by September 2011.

Consumer Council head of energy, John French, said: "Energy costs remain a real issue for consumers in Northern Ireland, with nearly half of the households here struggling to keep their houses warm.

"The entry of a new gas supplier in the Greater Belfast and Larne areas will hopefully result in lower prices which will, in turn, help in tackling the unacceptably high levels of fuel poverty seen in Northern Ireland."

Mr French added, however, that the Consumer Council was disappointed that pay-as-you-go customers, who make up almost 60% of all domestic gas customers in Greater Belfast and Larne, would still be unable to switch gas suppliers until later next year because the switching systems were not yet in place.